It is a fascinating time to be involved in the world of coaching sports, and particularly in the GAA. It’s like we’re central to the dawning of a new age, a long drawn out awakening to a better understanding of how to help people learn to coach and play our games.

People argue there was nothing wrong with the way the sport was coached before. They complain that modern GAA coaching is poisoning the game with its over-emphasis on hand-passing and obsession with zonal defending. It’s true that some coaches try to create a perception of themselves as rocket scientists or brain surgeons with some of the jargon they throw out to describe their role within coaching.

A stack of cones and whistle should never be confused with aeronautics or using a scalpel.

But, despite a relatively small percentage of nonsense, there has never been such an encouraging time in coaching when you look at the shift in how the game is now starting to be coached again. Of course, there have been some excellent coaching practices used for decades, but it hasn’t been as widespread as we’re seeing now with better coaching behaviours starting to drip all the way down to the grassroots.

The relatively recent emergence of coaching concepts like Game Sense and Games for Understanding have only accelerated our pursuit of coaching improvements by providing a foundation from which to examine different methods of how to coach the game most effectively.

As an association, we’re certainly not yet where we want to be, but there should be no question that coaching the game first has us moving in the right direction. That route is now clearly signposted and is leading GAA coaches away from that old-school idea of more drill-based sessions to a more games-based approach which helps players develop the skills and game intelligence in a more enjoyable and challenging environment.

The GAA went through a period where we fell in love with drills of all shapes and sizes. The more complicated the pattern the deeper our love grew. Those drill-based activities shaped our coaching culture and focused on trying to make sure the kids had all the technical skills perfected before they could play in a game. We’re now starting to witness a reversal of that trend.

In the past few years, since my own children have started school, and once they started getting homework, the idea of how they were being taught to read was completely new to me. In national schools up and down the country, children in junior infants are being taught some variation of the Phonics program to help them to learn how to read and comprehend. The program focuses on sounding out the letters into words, as opposed to how many of us would have traditionally learned to read, by just learning off the letters and the meaning of the words by heart.

Perhaps, it may seem like only a subtle shift, but the way it is now taught is being described by researchers as having a hugely significant impact on the accuracy of children learning to read aloud as well as their comprehension of what they are reading.

Phonics is something that has encountered plenty of opposition along the way, many who said reading standards would be diminished by adopting a new strategy from what had served teaching well for so many years.

But now phonics and mixed methods has become the norm for teaching infants how to read.

In a study carried out in the UK, researchers taught two groups of adults to read a new language and measured their learning through brain scans and standardised reading evaluations. The group who learned through phonics displayed far greater accuracy in their reading aloud as well as their comprehension of the subject matter as opposed to the control group who were taught using more traditional methods.

It’s a not that dissimilar a story in the world of GAA coaching. We’ve found a better way, based on research, and it is slowly starting to creep down into every county, parish and club in Ireland.

There was a conference in Cork IT recently on Movement and Skill Acquisition, essentially focusing on how to develop strategies to coach better. A key theme was emphasising how to put the game at the centre of your coaching. The various speakers extolled the virtues of providing a coaching environment that enables players to spend much of their training in game-based scenarios, using a constraints led approach to encourage them in essence to figure it out for themselves.

Paul Kinnerk recently published an academic paper entitled “A review of the game-based approaches to coaching literature in competitive team sport settings”. If you have an interest coaching in team sports, it is certainly worth a read. In it, he examines the findings of studies carried out across the globe looking at the whole area of games-based coaching. Again, it was a collection of research that is another validation of a coaching approach that focuses on placing players in game-specific situations and the benefits that come from operating that type of coaching environment.

I’ve written on these pages before about the importance of GAA coaches putting the game back as the central element of every coaching session. If, during some conditioned game in training, a particular skill is shown up to be deficient… maybe the kicking is really poor, then there is no problem setting up a skill drill that focuses exclusively on kicking for a few minutes, before returning back into the game again.

The best description I have encountered was by Dr Richard Bailey, a world leader of research in this area. Dr Bailey described a skill intervention, like the one I’ve outlined above, similar to going to the doctor to get medicine to help improve a certain ailment. You live your life and go on about your business as normal (that’s the game), when you get ill, you go to your GP for medicine to get better (that’s the skill-drill intervention). While you are healthy, and the game is working well, there is no need to stop and go back to the doctor.

GAA coaching and coach education continues to move towards this same notion. Training sessions, particularly as players get older, should be based almost exclusively on the context of the game. Those games don’t necessarily just have to be 15 on 15, or backs and forwards, they can be anything. By using small-sided games with certain constraints or conditions, coaches can replicate the type of game situations that the players will encounter in competition and empower them to make better decisions in a more dynamic and enjoyable setting.

Coaching is evolving all the time, but to get the most out of your players, playing games must remain the centrepiece of every session.


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